During the COVID-19 pandemic, essential workers helped the rest of us keep some semblance of order during the initial wave of uncertainty.
And farmworkers are included in that workforce; they're how we get our food on the table.
So when the pandemic hit, Andrea Rojas saw an increase in calls from agricultural workers to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. She knew that increase made sense, because calls from other industries like hospitality and restaurants went down, while there was sustained demand for farmworkers.
“That was one of the few industries that remained working and operational during the pandemic, where most of the other sectors were completely shut down,” Rojas said.
Rojas is the strategic initiative director for labor trafficking at Polaris, which is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to combat sex and labor trafficking. Polaris also runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
“And it's very telling about some of the failures in the system to protect these workers, because in order for a foreign national to connect with a national resource — with a National Human Trafficking Hotline — requires multiple steps in order to make that call,” Rojas said.
According to hotline data provided by Polaris to KCBX, agricultural labor trafficking victims were found to have most commonly dealt with verbal abuse, overworking, wage theft, and threats to be reported to immigration — whether they're undocumented workers or not.
Rojas said the historical basis for labor trafficking in agriculture is twofold: its historical reliance on slavery and its current reliance on migrant workers.
“So you have, historically, a lack of set of protections that workers in this industry don't have in comparison with other industries,” Rojas said about agriculture’s previous reliance on slavery. “So you start with a baseline of less protections.”
“You can have in the U.S. — one of the richest countries — a situation of massive failure to protect workers,” Rojas said.
So what's being done in Santa Barbara County to combat labor trafficking?
Yleana Anda is a project lead in the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Victim Assistance Program.
She assists victims across all types of crimes — including labor trafficking.
Anda's work is part of the county's Human Trafficking Task Force, which deals with both labor and sex trafficking.
However, Anda said there aren't as many labor trafficking cases reported, “not because it doesn't exist, but it's just very hard to identify and investigate. It's a very prolonged process.”
The county's task force has identified eight labor trafficking cases since 2017, which Anda said aren't necessarily farmworker related. Anda adds the task force does collaborate with federal agencies, such as the FBI, on labor trafficking cases that would involve farmworkers.
But according to Anda, many labor trafficking victims don't self-identify as victims because they don't realize they're labor trafficking victims, or that they work in exploitative work environments. That makes it difficult to identify labor trafficking in the county, farmworker or not.
“What our efforts are right now is on educating workers on the rights and the community on what labor trafficking is really so that they can be educated and help others identify,” Anda said.
She adds people close off when they're told they're a trafficking victim. That means talking with them and listening to them to help someone realize they're a victim — asking questions about their work history, how they got here, whether or not they paid a debt, how they got paid.
These questions help them realize the red flags in their work situation, according to Anda.
“It's through a number of meetings with individuals that they might self identify,” Anda said. “But it's not necessarily like a one approach to everybody. It's really just hearing their story and trying to find those markers of where exploitation may have happened.”
But there are limitations to the work that can be done in addition to the murkiness of identifying labor trafficking, such as Santa Barbara County's lack of resources to thoroughly investigate human trafficking.
Anda says there's only one detective focused on human trafficking for the whole county, labor trafficking or not. There are many industries — not just farmworking — that need to be investigated.
Anda also pointed out the differences within the county between the different kinds of trafficking that need to be covered.
Santa Maria, for example, is an agriculture-dominated community located in the county’s north end. Compare Santa Maria to Santa Barbara's south coast, Anda said, with its hospitality-driven industry and tourism and domestic efforts.
“So you're kind of looking at two spectrums of possible trafficking that we try to work in,” Anda said. “And it's just a large — a large, large space we're covering.
But Anda said the task force is still making inroads through collaborating with the county's law enforcement agencies and through education. This includes posting human trafficking resources where people work — including with farm labor contractors — as required by California law.
“Going in and making sure that businesses have postings that they're required to have, making sure that our educators have the training that they need to suspect trafficking,”Anda said.
Anda said the task force also promotes the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Rojas said collaboration with local partners is what makes the hotline possible.
“We always say that our partners in the field are the best promoters of the hotline and the number,” Rojas said.
KCBX News reached out to the FBI for comment about their work with the Human Trafficking Task Force and combatting the labor trafficking of farmworkers locally.
In an email, FBI spokesperson Sutton Roach says that while the organization could not comment on specific cases, the FBI "wants to hear from anyone who has a complaint and may feel that they are a victim violated under federal law."